How a shattered heart could lead to a debilitating aftermath
by Kristine Keller
These days, when a flame sputters and fades out, we’ve got an armful of friends ready to peel us off the floor with the margarita blender, limes and coconuts. You’ll do the proverbial dance around the blender while Jose Cuervo wafts through the air and spend the night yelling aspersions aimed at the opposite sex. Your army of comforting friends succors you with “you deserve better!” and “you do you tonight!” over the humming of the blender. You then delete said flame from your phone, take down the pictures of the two of you basking in La Esquina Park last summer and do your best to forget. But just when you think your heart can’t break into any more pieces, another memory seeps through and you grab your chest in disbelief that it’s happening again. Another perilous pang from the omnipotent organ that oxygenates us, protects us and makes us feel alive and in ruin at the same time.
For most of us, situations like this are fleeting. Most make a full recovery from those stumbles in the capricious dance of love and life, but for 5 percent of the population affected by a condition called limerence, heartbreak feels like an indefinite December night pierced by the strings of Joni Mitchell’s Blue album. Psychologists characterize this unique ailment as an involuntary and incessant state of compulsory and unrequited longing for another person. Usually both parties remain dejected for a period of time after a flame-out, but when one half of the couple moves on and the other remains in a state of constant longing and obsessive thoughts and feelings, limerence has the ability to take a serious toll on one’s already heavy heart.
During one’s initial descent into attraction, it’s healthy and quite fun to feel life’s natural euphoric high and the ascent of pleasure-activating hormones like dopamine and oxytocin. You’ll nod and smile while friends tell stories about their day, while the only thing you can think about is his mouth on yours or her bare back in your bed. You’ll shrug off the busy deadlines or running late to the subway only to find the doors shut in your face; these annoyances don’t matter when you’ve got someone waiting for you at the end of the day. Naturally, you want these honeymoon feelings to last forever, but for our productivity and sanity, we actually need these reward-seeking hormones to dissipate. And thankfully they do, after six to twenty-four months.
For those who suffer from limerence, however, these intense feelings never ebb. They say absence makes the heart grow fonder. But what these universal idioms surrounding love neglect to mention is what can happen when separation causes one’s heart to desire too much. Patients who suffer from limerence describe their thoughts and feelings as obsessive and compulsive; it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, then, that one of the only medications to treat those suffering from limerence, Lexapro, is the same one used to treat obsessive-compulsive disorder. Lexapro, a type of antidepressant, thaws the part of the brain that is responsible for the obsessive thoughts. Patients report difficulty concentrating, constant rehearsal and replay of shared interactions, and loss of control over one’s actions.
Although research on this condition is nascent, medication and cognitive behavioral therapy are providing promising results. Leading experts on limerence suggest that patients don’t ever forget the breakup entirely, but that if taken care of properly, symptoms can decrease after a few years. But, future empirical research and brain-imaging techniques are currently under way to yield a more comprehensive understanding of this evolving condition. What we do know is that a bad breakup or unrequited love can trigger the onset and that it can happen to anyone—limerent individuals can be found in all age groups, both genders and the full range of socioeconomic classes. So, if all it takes is a chant to “put the lime in the coconut” to get you over your heartbreak hump, then you’ve found your silver lining, and it’s looking more like a bubbling gold on the rocks.
Kristine received her master’s in psychology from NYU. She currently works at Vanity Fair. E-mail her at StreetshrinkNYC@gmail.com for questions.
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